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Reissue CDs Weekly: Be-Bop Deluxe - Axe Victim | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Be-Bop Deluxe - Axe Victim

Reissue CDs Weekly: Be-Bop Deluxe - Axe Victim

Box-set makeover of Bill Nelson and Co’s impressive but ‘NME’-slated debut album

Bill Nelson takes the lead in the 'Axe Victim'-era Be-Bop Deluxe. Left to right: Ian Parkin, Robert Bryan, Nelson, Nicholas Chatterton-Dew

Bill Nelson’s views on his band Be-Bop Deluxe’s debut album are measured. In the essay accompanying its reissue, he writes “Axe Victim is one brief snapshot of a band in the process of becoming something else…a modest beginning, flawed but not without charm. And not the end of the story.

I’ll always be grateful for the way that it helped launch a more appropriate vessel for my music, a ship which sails onward to this very day.” He sees the album as transitional.

When it was issued in June 1974, NME’s dismissive Ian MacDonald was less restrained in his review: “I confidently predict that Be-Bop Deluxe are destined to rapidly gather a large ‘live’ following in this country and rise, eventually, to become as big as The Beacon Street Union, or even The Electric Prunes.” After his peculiar reference to a couple of then-unlauded US psych bands, he concluded “instead of The-Spirit-Of-Jeff-Beck-Lives-On-In-Mick-Ronson’s version of [David Bowie’s’] ‘Moonage Daydream’, etc., we get Poor-Man's-Bowie-Meets-Jimi-Hendrix? A novel twist, but perhaps Bill Nelson would be better advised to cut his losses and join Cockney Rebel.”

be-bop deluxe axe victimThe Cockney Rebel aspect is revisited below, but what on earth had Nelson and Be-Bop Deluxe done to deserve this drubbing?

Listening to Axe Victim doesn’t answer the question. For sure, the album has its Bowie aspects but so did many records by arty, on-the-up British pop-rock outfits in 1973 and 1974. As the last word on Be-Bop Deluxe’s first LP, the new reissue digs so deep it addresses every aspect of the band in this period and raises nothing to suggest why such antagonism was merited. Nonetheless, the axe was out for Axe Victim.

In transitioning from the original album to the “Deluxe” reissue, Axe Victim – with its ever-hideous cover image – has become a four-disc box set like the package dedicated to the band’s third album, 1976’s Sunburst Finish, which was looked at in this column a couple of years ago. A 10-inch slipcase houses a book, a fold-out wallet containing four discs, a poster and pictures of the band members. Disc One is the original album plus bonus tracks; Disc Two is a new remix of the album (brighter and slightly punchier than the original: the drums sound less mushy – a fan-only experience) and more bonuses; Disc Three collects two John Peel sessions and a set of pre-album demos; Disc Four is a DVD with the original album, the new remix, a freshly created surround-sound rendering and a few bonus tracks.

be-bop deluxe axe victim friars posterWhatever NME alleged, the album is a winner. It’s very 1973/1974. At this point, Be-Bop Deluxe balanced showcasing Nelson’s guitar playing with a lightly prog songwriting sensibility, of-the-moment glam elements and odd hints of Bowie. “Night Creatures” is a wee bit Hunky Dory, there’s a “Drive-In Saturday” edge to “Jets at Dawn” and a fleeting nod to "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" in “Third Floor Heaven”, but the overriding feel is not of aping Bowie.  Instead, it's that of a band forging a brand of arty pop-rock incorporating guitar flash and immediate melodies while balancing reflectiveness with urgency. Especially impressive are the melancholy “Night Creatures”, the guitar showcase “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape” and the galloping “Love Swift as Arrows”. Though oomph is sometimes lacking, Axe Victim is hardly the “modest beginning” Nelson now sees it as.

The bonus tracks chart the run-up to the album’s release and its immediate aftermath. There’s their slightly anaemic independently issued ”Teenage Archangel” single from 1973, a Peel (he was a great supporter of Nelson) session from November 1973 and four tracks from an audition for Decca Records taped in December 1973. It is fascinating to hear the band evolving. In the end, Be-Bop Deluxe signed with EMI who, as Nelson notes, really wanted him as a solo act.

be-bop deluxe axe victimNelson’s essay is a great read (his website is worth a look as it’s crammed with interesting reflections). Going into the background and formation of the band, he explains that EMI were initially unconvinced after seeing them live and that as well as Decca, Island Records were interested in him. Curiously, they wanted Nelson to join a band with Free’s Andy Fraser, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell and vocalist Frankie Miller. He stuck with Be-Bop Deluxe and they went with EMI. He also says the label were telling him the rest of the band were below-par musicians. He did not part with Robert Bryan (bass and vocals: he sings lead on “Rocket Cathedrals”), Nicholas Chatterton-Dew (drums and percussion) and Ian Parkin (guitars and organ). Promotion for Axe Victim came in May 1974 through a tour supporting Cockney Rebel. That month, the band recorded their second Peel session. This is on Disc Three and it’s superb – harder-edged than Axe Victim, with a more cohesive attack than the album. Up next was a series of headlining dates over June and July.

Following a show at Biba's Roof Garden in London on 12 August 1974, Nelson effected a change. He says “EMI had never stopped advising me that I needed stronger musicians in the band and, despite my loyalty to what were now old friends, the tour did bring to light some of the truth of EMI’s observations. It was then, with a heavy heart that, at the culmination of the tour, I finally decided to search for other musicians to work with and Be-Bop Deluxe Mk 1 was put to rest.” Two of the new Be-Bop Deluxe members were bassist Paul Jeffreys and Milton Reame-James. Both had been in Cockney Rebel.

Less than two months after Axe Victim was in the shops, the band heard on the album was no more. Whatever its backstory, the album stands on its own merits and is more than musical juvenilia. Perhaps this splendid reissue will stimulate a deserving reappraisal of Be-Bop Deluxe Mk 1?

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